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Delicious “Campaigns, Inc.” at TimeLine Theatre

With a savvy sense of the moment, TimeLine has come up with a snappy, screwball, slightly salacious comedy about an intriguing piece of American political history: the blistering 1934 fight for the California governorship between the Republican Frank Merriam and the renowned socialist author Upton Sinclair.

Playwright and actor Will Allan’s “Campaigns, Inc.” homes in on the two political consultants, Leone Baxter (Tyler Meredith) and Clem Whitaker (Yuriy Sardarov), who ran Merriam’s campaign and who, if they didn’t invent the political smear campaign, certainly took it to such a hitherto unknown level that the defeated author of “The Jungle” liked to refer to them as “the lie factory.” The pair, practicing a profession then in its infancy, used direct mail to trash Sinclair (Anish Jethmalani) in a political blitzkrieg of an intensity that California voters had never before seen.

Perhaps most egregiously, the pair opened up Sinclair’s novels, found quotes from his most unnerving fictional candidates and directly attributed them to the author, who was left with the near-impossible task of trying to explain to a confused electorate why authors must give voice to persons with opinions that differed from their own.

These are moralistic times in theater — satires scare many theater people these days — and Allan sometimes falls into the trap of preaching about the obvious rather than allowing the audience to make those determinations on his own. And he simultaneously wants his audience to sympathize with the sexism faced by Baxter while presumably hating what she chooses to do and for whom she chooses to work. That’s quite a needle to thread and he would have been better just letting the character’s actions speak for themselves, especially given the fabulously determined and sardonic performance on offer here from Meredith, who has the right classic 1930s style down ice cold.

She’s got some whizz-bang support from a full-throated Terry Hamilton as Merriam, Mark Ulrich as the sleazy sidekick every political comedy needs and, strikingly, a most interesting turn from Dave Honigman as Sinclair’s pal Charlie Chaplin, dealing with his own problems as technology threatened the popularity of his silent tramp. David Parkes plays everyone from Louis B. Mayer to FDR, all in service of the play’s central argument that politics has always been a boy’s club about patting someone’s back to get a helpful thump in return.

Given the short scenes, I think this world premiere should come with an intermission (there is an obvious spot for one) and the interval chatter would be part of the fun here. But it’s great to see Bowling’s snappy style of direction in TimeLine’s long-standing intimate home combining with some hilarious retro projections from Anthony Churchill that come with as many gags and Easter eggs as the script itself. And, of course, it’s great to watch a made-in-Chicago world premiere of this quality.

The TimeLine audience Wednesday night loved this show to the point that I got surrounded on the street outside by folks delivering unsolicited bon mots of praise in the same clipped style I’d just been watching.

One, I was told, even was a modern-day political consultant, clearly loving watching the motherlode.

Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.

Review: “Campaigns, Inc.” (3.5 stars)

When: Through Sept. 18

Where: TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington Ave.

Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes

Tickets: $42-$57 at 773-281-8463 and

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